Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas in a Time of Culture War

It is that time of year again: Christmastime. To paraphrase Dickens (though not from A Christmas Carol), it is the best of times, and also the worst of times. The time when holidays are exhausting, the people you spend it with tiring, and the inevitable return to work depressing. Just like every other time of year, in fact, only more so.

It is also the time of year when a small but vocal sub-section of the population lament the fact that no one seems to remember 'the reason for the season.'

You may know of whom I refer to: the cultural warriors.

They are the one's who want to put Christ back into Christmas, to rescue it from rampant consumerism. Or they want to take Christ out of Christmas because it has become much too commercialized.

The semantic argument neatly parallels the cultural criticism. If Christ is in Christmas, that is because the word itself contains a historical trace of things that once were, namely, the celebration of Christ's mass--or Crīstesmæsse in ye Olde English  And if Christ has been lost to the celebration of Christmas, that is because people now find themselves animated by baser motivations, like the desire for new toys, new clothes, and, with a little less frequency, books. New game consoles, electronic devices, or perhaps just straight-up cash, to be spent however the recipient so desires, are also possibilities.

The rest of the population--tucked comfortably in their secular beds in the feigned hope that a rotund gentleman in a red suit, the memory of Eastern Orthodox saint, which was revived by a major soft drink producer in the first half of the 20th century, will shimmy down the chimney--wonder what all the huff and puff is about. Live and let live, they say. It's is all just stories, anyway. What really matter is that you enjoy the time you have, and with family, if you have them.

Welcome to Christmas in a time of culture war. The culture warriors wag their collective finger at the rest of the population, who happily mold the holiday to their secular ends. They pit the virtues of faith against the indifference of reason; the will to believe against the tepid bath that is common sense. The battle is fought almost exclusively, and certainly ineffectually, from one side, to the great annoyance of the other.

Christmas in a time of culture war is more accurately described as Christmas in a time of material plenty. The capitalist organization of the economy is real miracle here. (No really, it is.) The competitive organization of the marketplace has freed persons to improve their material lot through their own creative industry. This translates, in turn, to an increase in financial resources, which can be invested back into one's own business, or can be used to purchase things things like food, clothing, shelter, or, in line with our theme, Christmas presents.

Consumption, even conspicuous consumption during the holiday season (when, we are reminded, business either makes or breaks its yearly budget), is the engine driving the entire operation. Consumption drives a cycle of economic expansion, which rains blessing on the masses. But, if the culture warriors are to be believed, the cycle is one with vicious moral and spiritual consequences. Market economics and capitalist finance has endowed its beneficiaries with more personal freedoms than has hitherto been known anywhere on earth. We no longer have to wait on others to give us gifts, which we don't deserve anyway. Now, like the proverbial self-made man who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, we can buy gifts for ourselves--the sort that we really do deserve.

The consequence of material plenty is the schizophrenia of culture war.

Think it over for a moment. The old Christmas stories are typically set in economically trying times. This is as true in the Gospel narratives as it is in Dicken's A Christmas Carol. The stories are about the needy and vulnerable, just trying to eek out an existence on the edge of civilized life. Or think of the Christmas Truce on Christmas Eve in 1914, when 100,000 British and German soldiers decided singing Christmas carols and playing football (i.e. soccer) with the enemy was better than depriving him or breathe and life. The context makes the act of giving especially poignant.

At Christmas in a time of material plenty calls to serve God instead of Mammon amount to the pot calling the kettle black. There are poor people surrounding us on all sides. But they are not the one's vocalizing their displeasure with consumerism. The ones who feels the pin-prick of conscience are the one who raises their voice.

But the Christmas story is more 'secular' and so more materialistic than the cultural warriors allow. The accounts of Jesus' birth Matthew 2 and Luke 2 contain no message condemning material goods nor calls to stand apart from the rest of consumerist culture. Quite the opposite. In Matthew 2, The Magi bring expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the boy-child in Bethlehem. In Luke 2, this parents dutifully go to Bethlehem to register in the Roman census, but, as the story goes, find no room in the local inn, and are forced to settle for a manger in a stable. The image painted is rustic, not ascetic. It is not a matter of denying oneself the goods one can afford, but in being grateful for the gifts that one cannot.

And finally, there is the general question of what the Christmas story is supposed to amount to. The Gospel of John does not have an explicit account of the the birth of Jesus. But its prologue (John 1) does retell the creation narrative in Genesis 1 in the light of Jesus' coming. It describes how 'the Word became flesh' and 'made his dwelling with us.' The latter phrase could also be rendered as 'tabernacling' or 'tenting' with us. There is no escaping that the meaning of the phrase is thoroughly materialistic. God 'tents it' with humanity precisely by taking on humanity's ruder, material nature. In other words, God is the quintessential consumer who likes stuff just for the sake of liking stuff--the stuff we are made of, the stuff we have, and so on.

The lesson in all of this, I suppose, is that if the cultural warrior finds their material needs more than satisfied this Christmas, they should donate something to charity and/or shut up. Bemoaning the fact that other people either have forgotten about or don't know the 'reason for the season' is only to put one's own self-righteousness on display. And no one wants that.  It is Christmastime, after all.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Quebec Charter Troubles

A closer look at the Bill 60, the so-called 'Quebec Charter of Values', has me scratching my head. I don't claim to be a legal expert. I probably don't have the correct technical vocabulary at my disposal. Still, I can't help but think that the Charter's proposed amendments to the Preamble and Section 9.1 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedom (1976) with a lengthy reference to the values it promulgates--values things like 'state secularism' and 'religious neutrality', etc.--has overstepped some legal limit or violated some legal precedent. From the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), to the American Bill of Rights (1789), to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms itself, no one seems to have thought it necessary to enshrine the secularity of the state.*

That is very strange. That is so strange, in fact, it deserves a moment's pause. Every single one of these other documents are bona fide 'secular' documents. They are 'the real deal' as far as pieces of secular legislation go. So why the difference?

My honest answer is that I don't know. I have my suspicions, of course. What I don't have is the knowledge or resources at hand to provide an exhaustive literature review. The best I can do is list a few things that come to mind.

My leading suspicion is that in amending the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the PQ government has not the foggiest idea for what exactly bills/charters of rights are traditionally intended. Such documents were drafted for the protection of individual citizens against the arbitrary depredations of the state's representatives. Such documents are made law so that everyone plays by the same rules--and so, by extension, persons in position of authority don't abuse the authority the state delegates to them to see that its business is carried out.

It would never occur to the drafters of these bills/charters of rights to define the state as secular because their character is already intrinsically secular. It is in the very thing they give formal definition: that every single person possesses something like 'inherent dignity' and 'inalienable rights', which cannot be altered by any 'external' consideration--like a physical or mental handicap, or physical appearance or choice of clothing, or the sorts of groups they associated with, to name but a few possibilities.

By adding reference to the secularity of the state to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Quebec Charter of Values seems to fall into the error of treating the state as if it were an individual, whose dignity and rights needed protecting. But protection from what or whom? Other individuals?

When a state has enshrined its own secular character alongside the dignity and rights of individuals, it seems to me something has gone very wrong. The state outsizes all the other persons in the room. In practical terms, the law no longer protects the 'inherent dignity' and 'intrinsic rights' of individuals qua individuals, but privileges individuals qua some external consideration or other.

While I have no objection to the Quebec government legislating for the protection French language and culture, using the Charter of Values to amend the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms seems to be the wrong way to go about things.

The latter Charter is a great deal less free, after all, when the former Charter requires the following caveat is made:

“In exercising those freedoms and rights, a person shall also maintain a proper regard for the values of equality between women and men and the primacy of the French language, as well as the separation of religions and State and the religious neutrality and secular nature of the State, while making allowance for the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history.”


*A friend of mine pointed at that the French Constitution of 1958 actually does make explicit reference to the secular character of the state. I note it also makes reference to the French language. The more I think about this, the more 'French' the Quebec Charter of Values looks, and the more Anglophone my thought processes appear.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The PQ's Catholic Hangover

The Quebec Charter of Values, otherwise known as the controversial Bill 60, is a peculiarly Catholic document. The irony ought not be lost on anyone. The document is essentially a lengthy reflection, in the form of a piece of proposed legislation, on the nature of secularism. It holds up as an ideal the separation of 'religion' and 'state', but ends up perpetuating a very Catholic notion of secularity. The long arm of the Catholic Church, it seems, still exerts its influence long after the Quiet Revolution. The evidence is there for everyone to see in Chapter 1, Section 1, in which the state's secularity is affirmed except in instances related to Quebec 'cultural heritage that testify to its history'. But that is only a superficial matter. The influence of Catholicism runs much deeper.

The idea of religious beliefs propagated in the contemporary media is of truth claims that can be easily disproved by the methods of natural science. Evangelical creationism falls into this category, as does a general disbelief in miraculous occurrences. Other examples of this way of characterizing religion can easily be found. But this is to misrepresent broad sweeps of religious belief and practice. The idiom that religious beliefs, in particular the 'ethical monotheisms' Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, more naturally make their home is that of political theory, of law and contract, of judgment and negotiation. The practical expression of what are sometimes undoubtedly abstruse metaphysical claims respecting God are found in relations between persons. Hence sacred texts stipulate morality, lay out a general order for relations between rulers and subjects, and advocate for the materially disadvantaged.

Different religious traditions nonetheless are constituted by different emphases. In the Western world, for example, there are very generally speaking two forms of atheism: Protestant atheism and  Catholic atheism. These engender two very different responses to religion. The basic difference comes down to how authority is understood to be mediated to individual, whether in the form of a text (like the Bible) or in the form of a person (like a priest or bishop). On the whole, Protestantism tends to be more textually-oriented, whereas Catholicism has a much more clerical focus. Hence, when persons with a Protestant background embrace atheism, it tends to be an atheism of a more cerebral sort, which hones in on the 'irrationalities' of religious belief. While, when persons with a Catholic background reject the faith, their rejection tends to assume an anti-clerical form.

The same sort of logic applies to how one understands secularism. Protestant secularism tends to be more abstract, to concern itself with how a person thinks, rather than with how a person appears. As long as a person's outlook regarding the public sphere lines up with the rest of us secularly-minded folk, they can think what they want (within reasonable limits) and wear what they want (at the risk of drawing stares). On the other hand, Catholic secularism assumes the aforementioned anti-clerical form and fixates on the manifestation of authority. The differences between Catholic and Protestant secularism, of course, are not hard and fast. But I find the difference of priorities between Francophone and Anglophone communities too uncanny to pass by without comment.

The sorts of things being proposed in the Charter should now come into clearer focus.

The main task of the Charter is to legislate how the representatives of the sovereign authority shall manifest its secular nature. It identifies both the covering of the human face and the overt display of religious symbols as fundamentally contrary to state secularism. Persons in the employ of the provincial government, who are the visible manifestations of its authority, are instructed to remove any offending garment or decoration in the prosecution of their duties.

Notably, I think, the Charter does not bother to define what secularism is, nor what religion is, nor what the religious neutrality of a secular state is. The only concrete statements it makes regards how the employees of the provincial government ought to appear while the dispense with their duties. The rest is simply assumed.

So Catholicism continues to leave its negative impress on Quebec politics. Proof is found in Anglophone exasperation over what is perceived to be the unfair targeting of Muslim women under the thin veil of disinterested secular state. Anglophones cannot understand why what a person wears matters as much as it does, nor why it commands as much support as it seems to have among Francophones. Whereas persons like Premier Pauline Marois and Minister Bernard Drainville seem genuinely perplexed why anyone would oppose the idea of a employees of the provincial government conforming to some basic secular standard of dress.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Another Quebec Referendum in the Works?

In the distant recesses of my memory, there is a vague recollection of 100,000 Anglophones traveling to Montreal to tell Francophones that a united Canada needed the province of Québec in order to be whole.

The large-hearted gesture seems to have had the desired effect. The referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1995 was settled with a decisive 51% voting against leaving the federal union of Canada. I remember commenting to one of my high school friends that a second defeat meant the sovereignty movement was now likely to disappear entirely from the Canadian political landscape.

At the time, I had no notion that I would ever make a home in Québec. The province, for all intents and purposes, was a foreign country. But it was something I was taught about in Canadian history class or learned about reading Canadian history books. In my mind, as a Canadian--which, as an Ontarian, is how I thought myself--I identified with Quebecers because they too were Canadian.

It did not matter that I had never (at least to my knowledge) met a Quebecers. The stories were enough to sustain the mental connection. On the Plains of Abraham, my heart was with the valiant Montcalm, not perfidious Wolfe; just as it was with stalwart Brock on Queenstown Heights, not the American invader. That Canada was an anachronism in both these instances mattered not one bit. Montcalm the Frenchmen and Brock the Englishmen stood for what would become Canada. So also with the French habitants and the Loyalist settlers in the Maritimes and Ontario. They stood for the Canada I inherited, and so they were both my figurative ancestors. (I cannot be the only person who grew up thinking this way.)

My Canada is bilingual and multicultural. My Canada embraced more than my lingually-challenged and culturally flat-footed self ever could be. At the same time, living in Montreal the past 4.5 years has allowed idea of Canada to mature. I now recognize my Romantic idea of Quebeckers was the idea of an Ontarians--an Anglophone's vision of what Francophones should be.

Yesterday Premier Pauline Marois has called a provincial election on what nearly every observer and political commentator agrees are identity issues. The PLQ staked their political fortunes on the so-called Charter of Québec Values. The reasons appear entirely cynical. After the PLQ won its minority government, its movement in the polls was flat. And then, for causes that appear inexplicable to an Anglophone, the party's prospects immediately improved after they found their wedge issue.

Whether Marois' thought processes were essentially cynical is a chicken and egg question. Which came first? The PLQ's Charter of Québec Values, or the voter's desire for something like it? By fixating our attention on the actions of a few individuals on top, we risk misunderstanding the dynamics on the ground.

For the moment, the Charter seems to have done its work. The time has been judge right for the PLQ to seek its majority in the provincial legislature. That, by calling an early election, Marois is backtracked on a resolution from last year to fix the date of the next election is immaterial at this point. Whether she is perceived to have used the election to avoid testifying before a legislature committee to her involvement in her husband's alleged misuse of government funds may not be. The Liberals and there CAQ are both likely to use these barbs to great effect.

But, as strange as it sounds, Québec is the one place in North American where it's not the economy: it's identity, stupid! Campaigning on the virtues of the Charter seems also the perfect way to test the waters for a future referendum. It is a way to change the political conversation, and even to generate future support. The PLQ can also count on the fact that the rest of Canada's attitude towards Québec has changed significantly in the last two decades. One hundred thousand Anglophone's are not making the trip to Montreal this time around.